El Presidente

As Jacob Holmes was running up to half-court during warmups before a game in Wollongong about five years ago, Glen Saville extended his hand, nodded, and called him “El Presidente.” It was an acknowledgement of Holmes’ newfound status as head of the NBL Players Association.

“It’s ridiculous that someone of his ilk was calling me President,” Holmes told Downtown. “I always like to laugh about that: a pretty average basketball player was getting his hand shaken and being called President by one of the legends of the game.”

Holmes’ playing resume contests the “pretty average” tag. It includes a championship with the 2001-02 Adelaide 36ers, a 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medal, and 14 NBL seasons.

He was NBLPA president for the last five of those seasons, and though he retired from the NBL this offseason, his time representing the players will continue. Holmes is the chief officer of the new Australian Basketballers’ Association, a union he developed that represents all of Australia’s top professional players—those from the Boomers, Opals, WNBL and NBL. The NBLPA itself no longer exists, but its members are now part of the ABA.

While Holmes can be modest, that hasn’t subdued his ambition when it comes to protecting and improving the careers of Australian basketballers.

“It’s all about uniting the basketball players in Australia under one association,” said Holmes, the ABA’s only paid employee. “That’s my job every day, is to go out there and fight for the rights of our players and ensure they’re getting them looked after.”

Holmes was set on the path to that job during his rookie NBL season with Adelaide in 2001-02. He joined the NBLPA – which began in 1989 – after being convinced by teammate Rupert Sapwell, though he had “no idea” what he was signing up for. Regardless, he was suited to having a say in player issues.

“You could tell immediately that he was sharp, he had a quick wit, didn’t take a backward step to the veteran players,” said Sapwell, who spent time as NBLPA president. “Jacob always showed a willingness to absorb.”

Russell Hinder, who played 350 NBL games from 2001 - 2014, first spoke in depth with Holmes during a China tour with the Boomers when Holmes was about 21.

“He’s talking politics, he’s talking players union stuff, he’s talking fundamentals of basketball,” Hinder said. “I’m like, ‘How old are you?’”

Holmes was a club delegate for the NBLPA while he played for the South Dragons and 36ers before he became president. He ran for the top job after talking with Mat Campbell, the president at the time who was occupied with helping keep the Wollongong Hawks alive. Holmes was elected in 2010 and aimed to improve the connection between the players and their association.

“The way the league had gone the previous few years, with the collapse and everything else, I thought it was pretty important we had a players association that was there to protect the athletes,” he said.

One of the times he was called on as president came when Melbourne Tigers import guard Ayinde Ubaka was fired by Seamus McPeake, the Tigers’ owner at the time, in the locker room following a loss in the 2011-12 season. Ubaka wasn’t an NBLPA member, but the group made a concession for him to join. According to Holmes, the association helped to reinstate his accommodation and transport and to quickly resolve his legal issues so he could find another playing job. He joined the Hawks the same month for the remainder of the season.

It’s a story Holmes likes to tell incoming imports to explain the benefit of joining the union. Import sign-up is improving, according to Holmes, and returning imports are usually members. Holmes remembered the membership rate among Australian players as being 28 percent when he took over the association. That figure for Australians has grown to now be over 90 percent, which Holmes said was the NBLPA’s biggest achievement during his presidency.

Another issue Holmes has dealt with – without an Ubaka-style resolution – is the player points system. It was introduced prior to the 2003-04 season to help league parity, and it restricts players’ ability to play where they want. Holmes said it also makes it harder for clubs to survive and, according to the NBLPA’s research, it hasn’t increased evenness in the competition.

But the players haven’t been able to get it removed. According to Holmes, that was initially due to club support for it, and more recently the lack of NBL management continuity has made it difficult to reach a deal to scrap the scheme. The collective bargaining agreement between the NBLPA and the league expired in 2013, and a new one hasn’t been reached. Holmes thinks current league executive director Larry Kestelman will be around for a long time and NBL continuity will be the final boost the players need to get the points system abolished.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” Holmes said about not yet getting the system axed. “Because I’ve seen it affect players’ lives and I’ve seen players’ careers finish because of it.”

Such a comment from Holmes is credible given he played 407 NBL games. He knows the success and hardship that can come from being a professional athlete.

His fortune with injuries was partly responsible for his lengthy career.

“The injuries I did have were often to my legs,” he said. “Considering I never jumped, they didn’t matter that much. I could still play from the ground and grab and hold and wrestle people and get rebounds once they got below the net.”

“He always thought about it much more than everybody and was outthinking his opponent,” said Hinder. “Neither of us were blessed with an iota of athleticism, but we both eked out 13, 14-year careers.”

Holmes’ NBL run could’ve ended earlier. He was released by the 36ers after the 2010-11 season, even though he wanted to stay.

“That was difficult when it was my hometown and we’d bought a house in Adelaide and we were set up to play out my career in Adelaide,” he said.

He was without a team until Hinder broke his leg playing for Townsville during the 2011 preseason. Hinder suggested to then-Townsville coach Paul Woolpert that his Commonwealth Games teammate Holmes be his replacement.

“My most satisfying year was probably my first year up in Townsville,” said Holmes, who enjoyed playing under Woolpert as the Crocs made it to game three of the 2012 semi-final against the New Zealand Breakers.

Hinder was injured for 2011-12, but he and Holmes played together in Townsville for the next two seasons before Hinder retired. They had plenty of time for discussions in locker rooms, cars and airports.

“You talk about all sorts of things with different guys,” said Hinder. “You talk about music, you talk about rugby league, NFL, all of that. With Jacob, it was what he was doing for the league. And he was changing the league.”

Hinder said that Holmes got the players to view a viable union as essential to a viable league, and got the owners, who he spent hours at night fighting with, to recognise that having happier players leads to a better product.

“We’ve got about 14 teams worth of talent squeezed into eight teams,” Hinder said of the current NBL. “I think Jacob Holmes is a massive part of that.”

Holmes now works for more than just NBL players. As chief officer, he looks after the day-to-day operations and the strategic policy of the ABA, which is supported by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Each of the four sections of players – the Boomers, Opals, WNBL and NBL – has a president that sits on the ABA’s executive committee. Joe Ingles and David Andersen are co-presidents for the Boomers, Lauren Jackson leads the Opals, the WNBL president is Carly Wilson, and the president for the NBL players will be elected during the preseason.

Holmes, who is in the final year of his law degree, developed the idea for the ABA with Brendan Schwab, the co-founder of Professional Footballers Australia. Holmes thought the unrepresented basketballers outside of the NBL needed help and saw that by including more players as members, the union would get the resources needed for someone to run it fulltime and would become more powerful.

The ABA’s current concerns include completing collective bargaining agreements with the NBL and WNBL and working with Basketball Australia to find more sponsors for the Boomers and Opals.

According to Sapwell and Hinder, the players have the right person in charge.

Sapwell pointed to Holmes’ level-headedness as an indicator he’s suited to the job, as well as the fact he pursued an education during his playing days.

“He’s well qualified to talk about, ‘There’s a point in my career where I said, “Oh shit, I can’t do this all my life. What am I going to do?”’ And that’s the most important conversation that any players’ union can have with players.”

Hinder noted that, now Holmes’ NBL career is done, he can devote more time to representing players.

“He was a new father, a husband, a basketball player, at uni studying. Now he can focus on it? Look out,” said Hinder.

He just needs a new nickname, because “El Presidente” no longer fits.


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